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Australia said to plan Iraq pullout

July 01, 2007|From Reuters

SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister John Howard is secretly planning to begin withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq by February 2008, Australian media reported today.

The Sunday Telegraph, quoting an unnamed senior military source, described Howard's withdrawal plan as "one of the most closely guarded secrets in top levels of the bureaucracy."

The newspaper said the drawdown of troops would focus on soldiers based in southern Iraq on security duty with Iraqi soldiers.

Australia has about 1,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen in and around Iraq.

Howard, a close ally of President Bush, has been a mainstay of support for the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

As recently as last week, Howard said there were no plans to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, and has consistently said that his nation's troops would remain in Iraq for as long as needed.

A spokesman for Howard referred to the prime minister's statement last week and said he did not want to give credence to the newspaper report.

Howard said last week that his government was not committed to a timetable regarding Australian troops in Iraq but was committed to an outcome driven by circumstances and events.

The newsper said that his withdrawal plan had yet to be put to Bush or to the Australian Cabinet.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum told Australian television today that a plan by opposition leader Kevin Rudd to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, if he wins power in elections this year, could create tensions between Australia and the United States.

"Whenever one agrees with an ally about any subject, it's better than if one disagrees and there's always a tension or a stress on a relationship," he said.

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